India’s IT revolution, built on its technology base of the 60s and 70s, has propelled the country to the front ranks of growing world economies. Yet, we have failed to develop as a powerhouse of innovation in science and technology (S&T). What do we need to do to build a stronger S&T research presence and establish ourselves as a formidable knowledge power?
A concerted push from the government, the corporate sector and some social shifts are required to set us up on that path. It’s clear that to move up swiftly we need to improve existing research infrastructure, refocus on fostering research and build and sustain excellent centres of innovation. The government recently made a powerful intervention in this direction by setting up six Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISERs).
These are envisioned as centres of excellence where undergraduate teaching and research are re-integrated. Since Independence, the model that has been followed has created elite science and technology research centres, removed from teaching colleges in universities. This thinking was, of course, driven in part by the general scarcity of available resources and fostered only a handful of world-class institutions. With the growing importance of S&T towards building a knowledge-based economy and increasing resources available from our blossoming economy, there is no excuse to not do more.
In this regard, the successful model of the top-class American research university, which combines teaching, research and innovation via the establishment of incubator science parks, is worth examining. Exposing undergraduates to research as part of their learning experience is critical to attract them to pursue future research careers in S&T. Besides, it offers one of the most efficient ways to young people to discover their passions.
I use the term ‘research’ to include both high technology areas and appropriate technologies, which will tackle specific challenges that must be addressed in India. We need our young to have role models to realise that research in S&T offers an exciting and satisfying career choice. Fortunately, we have excellent role models in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Role models, though, need to appear early in a student’s life. This triggers dreams and ambitions by opening up one’s mind to new possibilities. My personal trajectory is a case in point. I had the good fortune of getting a taste of research when still in high school. I did my first research project on tracking sunspots under the enthusiastic guidance of late Nirupama Raghavan, the then director of Nehru Planetarium in Delhi. It was a transformative experience for me, as it taught me a new way to learn and explore the world outside the classroom. I was fortunate to pursue my passion to study the universe in one of the most amazing universities in the world.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every child growing up in India had such opportunities? While not all children will necessarily become scientists, it will enable them to figure out for themselves how to learn and discover their passions.
During my recent trip to India, I visited an impressive institution, VidyaGyan — a rural school set up by the Shiv Nadar Foundation in Uttar Pradesh. It’s the first of a network of rural schools it intends to operate in the state. Talented children from economically challenged backgrounds are selected, brought to this residential school and provided world-class facilities for academic learning, sports, music and general all-round development. It provides all the facilities currently available to only a select few in the elite urban schools of our country. It was inspiring to talk to these children brimming with curiosity.
Besides providing access to excellent schooling, we also need to provide more flexibility in curricula at the university level and revamp the current syllabi to aid learning — not merely scoring well in examinations. I mention the VidyaGyan case as an example of potential industry and education partnerships that can be established right from school up to college. Stewardship from major industrial houses in India via regional partnerships with local schools and colleges could be transformative on short timescales.
We also need to recalibrate our understanding of research and innovation. Nobel prizes can’t be the only metric to measure our country’s prowess in S&T. We need to face our developmental challenges through simple innovation and change the nature of our industrial landscape. While Nobels bring us enormous pride, the inventor of a new way to purify water cheaply and cleanly, for instance, will have enormous impact not just in India but also globally. It’s not a far dream to imagine that such innovation will arise from India.
An intellectual shift is also needed in the attitude of our current cadre of researchers — top class research takes time, dedication and doesn’t yield quick results. We need to have a competitive research environment where colleagues push and inspire each other to be more creative and produce high quality work. Research practices need to transform to bring us on par with other countries.
One way of transforming research practices and providing role models, which China has adopted, might be worth emulating. China is pumping significant resources into developing its S&T infrastructure by establishing and funding state-of-the-art laboratories. This has in turn allowed it to successfully lure several top science leaders of Chinese origin, who are at the forefront in some of the cutting-edge fields like genetics in the US, to spend three summer months in China.
There is, of course, the possibility of opening up the education sector to foreign universities and allow them to set up new institutions in India. Perhaps the competition that this will generate is precisely what is needed to propel us into becoming a major knowledge economy.
Priyamvada Natarajan is professor, departments of Physics and Astronomy, Yale University The views expressed by the author are personal